SACRAMENTO — Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel, whose ambitious proposal to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir has won praise from environmentalists, nonetheless took aim Wednesday at one of their pet causes: preservation of endangered species.
Referring to the endangered species law, which protects hundreds of animals and plants and is administered by the Interior Department, Hodel said: "Sooner or later this society must come to grips with the problem of . . . an absolute mandate . . . such as the Endangered Species Act because it gives us no flexibility."
Under the 15-year-old act, he said, "A mid-level or lower-level employee at the Fish and Wildlife Service (determines) whether or not activities and projects that can affect the health and safety of tens of thousands of people go forward."
As an example, he said: "The Department of the Interior is the obstacle to a freeway construction and two dams being constructed in the San Diego area, one of which has very serious health and safety implications for the community in terms of loss of water supply in the event of an earthquake. Because of the Endangered Species Act, we are given no alternative."
The least Bell's vireo, a bird on the endangered species list whose habitat is the San Diego area, is the reason the department must oppose these projects, Hodel spokesman David Prosperi said.
Hodel made his remarks after a luncheon sponsored by the Free Market Political Action Committee, when he delivered a speech intended to win support for his Hetch Hetchy plan. The audience of about 100 included numerous GOP legislators involved with the committee.
This was the latest in a series of speeches Hodel has made throughout California calling for draining the reservoir in Yosemite National Park and restoring it to its natural state. Although environmentalists have lauded the proposal, it has been strongly opposed by officials from San Francisco, which receives much of its water from the reservoir and as much as $56 million from selling its excess water and power.
Hodel said a complicated feasibility study of the ambitious plan could take up to six years and cost $3 million to $5 million.
Some critics have suggested that Hodel is promoting the Hetch Hetchy plan to divert attention from his controversial development proposals, or to throw environmentalists off balance. Hodel denied this Wednesday.
He said he told environmental groups that "this proposal wasn't suggesting that I was changing my views on other issues where we differed, and I wasn't expecting them to change their views.
"But if we could agree on this issue because it's right for the national park system, we should work together on it. . . . At the same time they're still using my name as a monster to raise money."
Before the luncheon, a Hodel press aide sent reporters articles from various publications, particularly his home state of Oregon, touting the interior secretary as a possible 1988 Republican vice presidential nominee.
But when asked about this prospect, Hodel, a veteran GOP activist, replied, "Nobody runs for that job."